The Lottery of Love, Orange Tree Theatre

The Lottery of Love, Orange Tree Theatre

The best play I’ve seen so far this year is the Orange Tree’s revival of 80s all-female comedy-drama Low Level Panic, so I had tentative high hopes for Lottery of Love, an adaptation of Marivaux’ little-performed 18th century comedy Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard. These hopes were more than fulfilled.

The plot is classic farce: a betrothed couple who have not yet met simultaneously decide to swap places with their respective servants in order to gauge their intended’s true personality. Each of the four instantly falls for their ‘other half’ (faux for faux, as it were) erroneously believing themselves to be in love with the wrong person. Thus begins “a fight to the death between common sense and love.” Performed in the round (with regularly direct address to the audience), an intricate suspension of roses and tea lights makes clever use of the intimate space, turning it into a garden of romance and intrigue.

Tam Williams and Dorothea Myer-Bennett in THE LOTTERY OF LOVE - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Helen Maybanks.jpgDorothea Myer-Bennett leads the cast as Sylvia in a beautifully observed performance: subtle and forlorn when needed, sometimes fierce, and going all out for laughs where appropriate. A young woman of strong character, she is dismissive of men (especially handsome ones!) and demands a man of equal character who can be her true and honest partner. Her rather didactic beliefs are shaken by the experience of falling in love, but Sylvia loses neither her head nor her moral core and principles, holding out for a man who will offer her marriage based on her own self and not her money or family even when it appears it will cost her the love of her life.

Ashley Zhangazha (as Richard, Sylvia’s intended, passing as a gentleman’s gentleman) and Tam Williams (as Martin, Sylvia’s brother who helps out with the ruse by pretending to be a rival for her hand) are given rather less to do, but give thoughtful and dignified performances. Keir Charles’ swaggeringly lascivious high-energy performance almost steals the show as a leering and rose-bedecked Russell Brandian dandy who exploits his master’s subterfuge to seduce what he believes to be the lady of the house, only to find himself falling properly in love on learning he’s been conned by a ladies maid.

This 90-minute play fairly races along, energetic performances fitting a pacey plot with no waffle but plenty of laughs. The script manages to be both clever and laugh out loud funny, the perfect marriage of witty wordplay and hilarious characters. It is rather light on drama – there is little conflict, what few moments of genuine angst and pain exist are resolved literally with minutes, and no real doubt both couples will clear up their misunderstandings and live happily ever after. But it is not without substance. Befitting the successor to Low Level Panic, this is rather a feminist play. The two female roles (Claire Lams bringing real verve and character to her “impudent little monkey” ladies maid) are strong, smart, outspoken women. The respect and equality shown them by the male characters is wholly refreshing. Sylvia’s father (Pip Donaghy, uniformly excellent) repeatedly emphasises his respect for and desire for her to make her own choices, and while he enjoys having fun tricking her there is never any malice or feeling she is being exploited or pressured. For a light, frothy romantic comedy, Lottery of Love manages to hit quite a few pretty salient (and very modern) points about class and gender: love vs lust, classism, love across the class barrier, and sexual double standards where a woman can be ruined by sex outside of marriage.

A joyous and sweet romp that manages to be intelligent, feminist, and very very funny.

Tam Williams and Dorothea Myer-Bennett in THE LOTTERY OF LOVE - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Helen Maybanks.jpg

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre

Brilliant acting and energy can’t quite cover the wasted potential of a thin script.

The legend of Don Juan dates back four hundred years. A byword for licentiousness and excess, re-imagining this iconic figure for the 21st century is ambitious task. In his first non-Shakespeare stage role since 2004’s the Pillowman, David Tennant is more than up to the job. However, writer/director Patrick Marber plays it mostly straight by giving us a fairly unexamined portrayal of a man whose dedication to debauchery stops for nothing.

David Tennant’s sheer unbridled joy and abandon carries things along nicely, ably supported by a cast better than the material. But the play fundamentally can’t decide what it is: a debauched romp? A deconstruction of the evils of excess? An indictment of modern faithless society? A standard morality tale? An argument for sexual liberation? An argument for living by your own rules? A ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ style romp about the relationship and hi-jinks of a wild master and his reluctant but loyal manservant (brilliantly played by Adrian Scarborough, whose Stan is the only character to achieve real depth)?

DonJuanInSoho_14.jpgThe constant lurching creates odd tonal shifts and leaves a rather flat feeling. Overall, it feels like the audience is invited to a beautiful sexy party where the drinks and the laughs never stop. But a play about sexual politics simply cannot be so reductive. A brilliantly performed nihilist libertine deserves more than disposal one-dimensional female characters to play off. The sexual, race and class politics are uncomfortable. A working class woman is sexually used and humiliated and then never seen again. But she’s a gold-digging chav, so who cares? Actually none of his conquests or failed conquests, including a newly-wed whose bridegroom’s death Don Juan is directly responsible for, are ever seen again – bar his wife, who gives a meandering speech about how he broke her heart (after spending months pretending to be a yoga-doing, lentil-weaving charity worker and then marrying her in order to score her virginity). Danielle Vitalis’ quietly dignified delivery is affecting, but her insistence on thanking Don Juan for giving her the gift of unlocking her sexuality is cringeworthy. Is this 50 Shades of Gray? Can someone please get this woman a vibrator, and tell her her sexuality is not male property?

A few brief attempts at critical analysis are raised but then debunked (is Don Juan’s behaviour really due to the tragic loss of his mother?). It’s unclear whether Marber is trying to examine the character’s inner landscape, or to subvert the kind of reductive cod psychology so often used to justify and humanise bad behaviour. But is Tennant’s Don Juan to be considered a villain? We are told, explicitly, that Don Juan is  “not a loveable rogue” but everything in the staging shows the opposite. The script encompasses race, religion, female sexuality, the exploitation and commodification of sexuality, sexual liberation, death, and the importance of remaining true to one’s own self. An awful lot of potential, alas wasted. It’s unclear what the message is or even if there is supposed to be a message, as moments of real insight are lost under a tidal wave of raucousness and non-stop gags: A supposedly mutually respectful encounter with a group of intelligent and appreciative prostitutes (the worst cliche of the ‘happy hooker’, made more problematic by the adoption of generic cod-Eastern European accents) is interrupted by the arrival of Don Juan’s stern taciturn and disapproving father. After an uncomfortable confrontation, Don Juan Senior’s exit is interrupted by Happy Hooker #1 announcing, “If want fuck father it cost extra, because old.” Funny? Not really. In the 17th century bribing a religious man to blaspheme could make a shocking statement about religious hypocrisy and the rejection of entrenched faith systems; in agnostic 21st century London taunting a Muslim rough sleeper feels like nothing more than thuggish Islamophobia. Even Don Juan’s violent death is hastily skated over before the entire cast start getting down, the genuinely eerie stone harbinger of death suddenly revealing a light-up neon disco ball face because PARTY PARTY PARTY!

What Don Juan succeeds at, ultimately, is a deconstruction of celebrity and excess in a world increasingly devoid meaning. It’s hard to not appreciate the irony of an actor of Tennant’s status (who at this point could read the phone book onstage to standing ovation) demolishing our narcissistic unexamined me-me-me “Welcome to my vlog, today I ate a plum” culture. In a disconnected world, without faith, without boundaries, and ultimately without consequences, what else is there but pleasure to distract from the long slow grinding march towards the grave?

Naomi Westerman On Sex in Theatre

Naomi Westerman On Sex in Theatre

It’s a warm evening in September and I am watching one of my closest friends give his wife (also a good friend) a good seeing-to over a chair. It is their first wedding anniversary. The enthusiastic audience hoots and cheers. I smile and go back to reading the ‘dogging’ section of a popular UK swingers forum.

If you are a playwright, actor, or theatre-maker, none of this will raise an eyebrow. Probably.

I have been playwriting for three years, and most of my work has been in fairly serious drama or drama with elements of comedy, generally female-centric work relating to mental health, disability, women, contemporary urban life with the odd dystopia thrown in. I was walking home one night and noticed someone had graffitied the word ‘dogging’ on the wall of the tennis centre near my house, with a helpful arrow pointing towards the car park. I went home and wrote a ten-minute play that evening, which could not be anything but a comedy. A year later and that short play now forms the opening scene of my full-length feminist lesbian pro-sex political protest porn play ‘Puppy’, which is one of two of my plays debuting as part of VAULT Festival next month.

Writing about sex is never easy, staging sex harder still (no pun intended), and I’m not sure if trying to make all this sex comedic makes it better or worse. Sex is inherently funny (and I believe also inherently political), and dogging occupies that weird area between cheeky Carry On British humour, and something sometimes perceived as more seedy and sordid (which I was keen to avoid).

 

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Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room

Finding the right balance between comedy and a more serious approach when dealing with issues of sexual orientation, identity, porn, exploitation, censorship, politics and protest was sometimes difficult, but one challenge was figuring out how to script and stage the sex scenes themselves, in a way that was funny but not cheesy or exploitative. Theatre does not have a great reputation for staging sex scenes well, although I have been inspired by previous productions that used imaginative and inventive metaphors (the Lyric Hammersmith’s Tipping the Velvet’s exploding canons and circus silks) and staging (the RSC’s It’s a Mad World My Masters’ silhouettes and curtains). In David Hare’s The Blue Room, Nicole Kidman was famously described as “pure theatrical Viagra”; I certainly have no desire nor interest for one of my productions or cast to ever be described likewise. I’d rather get a good solid laugh.

 

In my other VAULT Festival play, Claustrophilia, sex is the unmentionable elephant in the room. The one-woman drama centres around a young woman who is “totally fine” but who spend her adolescence kidnapped and held as a prisoner in a single room. She claims he never touched her, and chastises the audience for their salacious interest in those particular details. Sex, whether absent or present, always has power.

Puppy is on at Morley College, 23rd February, 2nd March. http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/puppy/2017-02-23

Claustrophilia is on at Vault Pit, 17th to 18th February.

http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/claustrophilia/2017-02-17